The difference between good steampunk lit and bad is the difference between a velvet trimmed Edwardian morning coat and a t-shirt with a gear stuck to it. While the stylistic intent is clear in both cases, the latter is lame and the amount of skill in creating the former scares off most fans.
Every once in awhile something really great comes along to prove how amazing steampunk can be. On the big screen, it was the dueling magicians in The Prestige. The illusionists’ sophisticated and genteel world served to highlight the savagery of their enmity. In the comic book world, it’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen‘s Miss Wilhelmina Murray drawn against the working waterfront. Her steely poise and the background construction capture the civility and industry of the entire genre in just a few panels.
As for novels, Aurorarama: The Mysteries of New Venice is a shining example of steampunk lit. Nothing less could ever be expected of French author Jean-Christophe Valtat after his novel 03 was regarded by some critics as the best book of 2010.
The first of the Mysteries of New Venice series, Aurorarama opens in New Venice, the jewel of the arctic, in the first decade of the twentieth century, a white city rising from the ice as beautiful and culturally rich as the ever-sinking, more seasonable Italian Venice.
Something stirs in the darkness. The servants have grown sullen, the secret police force known as the Gentlemen of the Night are on edge, and anarchist propaganda appears in the most polite of circles. When Brentford Orsini, one of New Venice’s most well known citizens, finds himself under the eye of the Gentlemen of the Night, he begins an adventure that threatens his entire world.
An assistant professor in Comparative Literature in the Blaise Pascal University, Valtat’s knowledge of modern and contemporary literature and their intersections with technology place him in a unique position as a steampunk author. In a world filled with sloppy pastiches (feel free to add a defense of Cthulhu in Wonderland here), and painfully stilted dialog, Valtat’s work both refreshes and honors its Victorian and Edwardian forebears.
The technology of Aurorarama, from aerosleds and airships to the incubator and an arctic greenhouse, create a vision of a world that requires minimal suspension of disbelief from readers. And while hindsight and the digital revolution highlights the fantastic elements of the novel, it forms a more compelling and intriguing picture than, say, H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free.
In terms of language and culture, Valtat’s stories are as beautiful as those by Jules Verne. But Valtat’s characters and their relationships—particularly the cross-cultural between the expanding “civilized” society and the local indigenous people—are more complex than anything most Victorian era writers published:
The airships’ shadow was not the only one being cast over Brentford’s brain. The meeting had left a bitter after taste, as was often the case when Inuit were involved. As much as he wanted to be useful to them, his duties to the city could not but get in the way.
Since the natives had come into contact with the Whites, and though it was very clear that without them all Westerners who ventured there would have ended up as a dirty bunch of half-frozen cannibal wrecks, they had been exploited, misunderstood, and underestimated in every possible way.
Fans of Aurorarama will be disappointed to learn that Luminous Chaos: Book two in The Mysteries of New Venice will likely not be published by the original date of March 2013 listed by its publisher, Melville House. However, it should hit the shelves long before the December 2035 date listed on Amazon.
Merriam Jones, writer of Cards & Stars, regularly reviews random items of interest for Isotropic Fiction.